A beginner’s guide to visiting national parks
Transportation tips, lodging advice, and other details you need to know.
This story has been updated. It was originally published on April 24, 2021.
Summer is almost here, and for many Americans, that means it’s time to start planning that long-awaited road trip. With 237 million visitors in 2020, national parks are some of the most popular destinations for this kind of travel, as they provide a unique opportunity to connect with nature while being socially distanced at the same time. But there are nuances that can make or break your visit to a national park, and they don’t reveal themselves until you’re actually there—which can be too late.
On my first trip to Zion National Park in Utah, I expected serene hikes with birds chirping among towering red rock. Instead, I found myself surrounded by crowds packing into shuttles; the vibe more theme park than nature-y.
Although I left feeling a bit underwhelmed, my second visit to Zion, during the off-season, was a completely different experience. I arrived the week before peak-season shuttle service began, allowing me to tour the park’s main road (Zion Canyon Scenic Drive) in my own vehicle. I camped on-site, rolling out of bed early for hikes, and experienced the Zion I had imagined—tranquil and sublime.
They say hindsight is 20/20. Here’s hoping by borrowing ours you can plan a memorable trip.
When planning your park visit, take time to look at maps of your destination on the National Park Service website. These maps generally do a good job of letting you know how many miles separate different points, and sometimes include time estimates for traveling between various park entrances.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. A notable one is Zion National Park, which is so swarmed with adoring visitors that you’re not allowed to drive along the popular scenic road in your own vehicle for most of the year. Outside of winter, you’ll have to use the park’s shuttle system to travel that route.
Give yourself multiple days to explore
As you pore over maps, you may notice that national parks have distinct areas. Sometimes they connect, but sometimes they don’t. You may also be surprised to find you could lose most of a day moving between them.
In Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, for example, it can take six hours to drive between Island in the Sky and the Maze. Most people only make it to Island in the Sky, but self-sufficient, experienced trail drivers with high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicles and off-road recovery gear may also want to experience the remote beauty of the Maze. If that’s you or a friend, plan for a minimum of three days.
But at Joshua Tree National Park in California, two deserts run into each other. It’s hard to tell the difference unless you know that the park’s namesake trees don’t grow in the Colorado Desert, but their Seussian forms scatter the Mojave. Absent that indicator, though, the transition between the neighboring ecosystems is seamless as you drive along the main road.
Other parks, however, may not allow large vehicles in certain sections, especially roads with switchbacks and hairpin turns. While you can usually avoid these areas, you may want to reconsider the size of the RV you’re renting, or avoid driving a motorhome altogether, as it may mean a must-see feature will have to come off your itinerary.
Going-to-the-Sun Road in Montana’s Glacier National Park is a great example. There, all vehicles (including any attached trailers) can only be up to 21 feet long and 10 feet tall, which is smaller than most RVs. If traveling Going-to-the-Sun Road and road-tripping in an RV are both on your bucket list, fear not, we have advice: Find an outfitter that rents short wheelbase Sprinters or small Class B RVs like the Winnebago Travato.
No matter what park you’re visiting, renting a small RV may also make it easier to park at trailheads, where designated spots for RVs can be scarce or non-existent. Going small just might save you from having to park in a different lot. Nothing against shuttles, but you’d better check the schedule before you wind up stranded after a sunset hike.
Tips for staying inside national parks
Among the most convenient, immersive ways to see a national park is to actually stay in it. Doing so makes it easier to go on night hikes or do some stargazing.
Make sure you have the right gear if you’re camping in a tent
If you want to go full-on outdoors enthusiast, you can try tent camping at a national park campground. The key is to book your spot as soon as reservations open to the public, if not shortly thereafter—available sites will quickly become scarce.
For an experience you’ll remember for the right reasons, start with the right gear. But before you become REI’s best customer, consider your options. You can get second-hand gear in great condition from thrift shops or platforms such as Geartrade, Facebook Marketplace, and even Reddit. Renting gear is a handy solution as well, especially if you don’t normally camp or aren’t sure how much you’ll like the great outdoors.
[Related: How to make your outdoor gear last longer]
It’s also important to note that depending on where you are and the elevation, nights can get very cold––even in the summer. If you have an improperly rated sleeping bag, or you’re using it wrong, you’ll be falling asleep to the sound of your chattering teeth. The best way to prepare is to consult an outfitter near the park of interest. They’ll know exactly what you’ll need to keep dry, stay warm, and, most importantly, help ensure you don’t advertise your campsite as a bear-friendly buffet.
If traveling by RV, confirm your campsite has what you need
Touring a national park in an RV can make for an iconic vacation. But before you start browsing for rentals, make sure the park you want to visit accommodates RVs and snag a spot as quickly as you can.
When it comes to on-site RV camping, first-trip fails tend to center around electric hookups. Depending on your vehicle, you may need a campsite with power, but some campgrounds only offer “dry camping” sites with no electricity.
If you’re planning a multi-night stay without power, ask your outfitter lots of questions. You’ll need to know if the RV is equipped with solar panels, or if the house batteries charge up while you drive. Find out if the refrigerator runs on propane in addition to electric power, and if there is an onboard generator. At sundown, when the temperature drops, your furnace can drain your RV battery overnight. This can happen even if your furnace runs on propane, as its fan still runs on electric power.
Not all lodges are made equal
If dragging your house around like a crustacean is not your thing, you can always opt for an in-park lodge, should the park of your choice have one.
Lodge accommodations vary greatly though, and you won’t want to be surprised by a lack of air conditioning in the middle of July. When considering any booking, search online for visitor reviews and discussions on message boards. In some cases, you’ll even be able to ask specific questions to people who have stayed there, which may be the best way to make sure reality matches your expectations.
Accommodations outside a national park
While staying on-site is a unique experience, your road trip can still be amazing if you stay off-site. For best results, give yourself more time than you think you need. If you choose to stay in a charming town near your chosen park, for example, you’ll have to account for travel time between the two, plus the much slower speed you’ll drive in the park itself.
Always bring food
Given the amount of time you’ll spend inside your chosen park, there’s no guarantee you’ll find something to eat. At some parks, you’ll be lucky to locate a lone protein bar at the visitor’s center, while others have their own grocery stores.
So whether you’re staying on-site or traveling by car, make sure to bring a packed cooler and extra food. If you’re touring in an RV, stock the fridge.
Even if you find your park has provisions available, you probably won’t want to spend precious time standing in line for the register when you could be out there becoming one with nature.
Timing your visit
Expectations go a long way toward a great first experience, and timing is key.
Seasonal closures happen, and you’ll also want to check for any permits or waiting lists for famous hikes. About a week before you set out, scan the websites for the parks you’ll be visiting to avoid disappointment.
Even if you can’t time your trip for when your chosen park is fully open, its beauty will still shine through—just a glimpse is enough to know you’ve visited a special place on Earth.
Correction April 26, 2021: The story previously suggested all of Zion National Park was inaccessible to private vehicles during peak season, instead of only the main scenic road.